He Remembers When the Saber Was Mightier, but Now Bengal Lancer Francis Ingall Takes Up the Pen

updated 09/11/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/11/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

There may have been greater exploits performed on the plains of India, but in that far frontier of his memory where the sun never sets on the British Empire, Francis Ingall still leads that long-ago charge of the Bengal Lancers. Ingall was a fresh, 21-year-old subaltern in the autumn of 1930 when he and his men were sent to reconnoiter a threatening band of Afridi tribesmen on the Kajuri plain. The hostile tribesmen outnumbered the 60 or 70 men of Ingall's 6th Lancer squadron by 10 to one that day. "The signal lamp was hit; we could no longer communicate with the rest of the regiment," he says, the smell of polished leather and sweat still pungent in his mind. When the musket-toting tribesmen refused to back off, Ingall ordered his officers to draw swords, yelled, "Charge!" and set off at a full gallop. The Afridi quickly fled.

It was only a minor skirmish, and the tactic perhaps even anachronistic, but it is some comfort now, in the autumn of his years, for the old general to remember the great moment when he put the spurs to his steed and protected the regiment. For the enemy, "It is quite an alarming sight to see officers on horse with troops behind them coming at full gallop," he says. "I had a great feeling of exhilaration. There was no sense of fear."

Puffed with years and honors, Ingall has recently written of those bygone times when casualties were light and the Empire was golden. He has dedicated his autobiography, The Last of the Bengal Lancers, to "my charger Eagerhart and all the brave cavalry horses."

On the cusp of his 81st year, Ingall and his third wife, Margaret, 64, live in Sonoma, outside San Francisco. His home is a modest two-bedroom bungalow called Invermark—named after Ingall's ancestral home in Limpsfield Common, England. But Ingall does not just putter in the garden of his past. He works four days a week with the Pakistani consul in San Francisco helping process visas and passports and encouraging tourism, lends his rich British accent to occasional voice-overs in TV ads and even served as president of his local chamber of commerce a few years back.

Always a man of action, Ingall had spurned a career in his father's London brokerage business. "As a small boy, I was enamored of soldiers, mounted soldiers particularly," he says. "But my father wanted me to be a partner with him. I said, 'Father, never.' " Instead, he entered Sandhurst—Britain's West Point-in 1927, where one of his classmates was a "gentleman cadet" named David Niven, who was destined to campaign in Hollywood (and one day star in the movie The Charge of the Light Brigade).

After two years Ingall was off to India, the Kiplingesque land where British officers could still revel in the plush twilight of the colonial era. There, in distant outposts, they rode or drilled in the mornings, played polo or golf in the afternoons and drank whisky in the evenings while punkahwallahs worked the over-head fans. There were formal dinners and dances, servants for the officers, and even in the field during hunts, native bearers brought damask tablecloths and crystal goblets for their lunches. Once a year, when the weather cooled, eligible young women sailed out from England on what was called the "fishing fleet" to inspect the dashing officers on the fringes of the Empire. "We were the crème de la crème of the service," he says of the Bengal Lancers, the mounted corps that had been guarding India's frontiers since the 1860s. "It was an exaggeration, but we believed we were better than anybody else—living in the distant days of the horse charges."

During the 1930s Ingall soldiered, raised horses and married his first wife, Susan, with whom he had two children. He rose to colonel and suffered the transition from horseback to armored cars and tanks. During World War II he fought the Germans up the spine of Italy, winning two medals for bravery.

He earned the first medal when he led his men across the Po River where Germans were entrenched. He commandeered three armored cars and did what he had done a decade and a half earlier in India—he charged a disputed bridge. The next medal was earned two days later when he took his men on what he calls a "50-mile gallop" toward Venice, bypassing German strong points. "I just decided to let the 6th Lancers loose to see what they could do," he says modestly.

"You can't fool around in a war."

Fooling around came after the war, when Ingall's marriage fell apart. He had a brief second union that "didn't turn out well" and left the army but was called back into service in 1949. After winning independence, Pakistan needed an officer of the old school to set up its military academy, and Ingall was their man. Setting up the academy at Kakul, he says, is "my proudest accomplishment." He fashioned the training center after Sandhurst, even insisting that the students be called gentlemen cadets. For establishing the Pakistan Military Academy, Ingall was promoted to brigadier general and was awarded the Order of the British Empire by King George VI.

In 1951 he left the army entirely and entered business in Bombay, where he met his present wife, Margaret, who, inconveniently, was married at the time. It was a world of expatriate decadence, and "Everybody had a little arrangement going there," Margaret says. "Now I think you call it wife swapping. Francis and I were the only ones who weren't doing it."

They did fall in love and, after Margaret's divorce, were married. Looking for a change of scenery, they moved to California in 1960, where their son, Francis, was born and, tragically, died of cancer while still a toddler. His wife "has never been the same again," says Ingall. Margaret says simply, "There is nothing worse."

Their grief was complicated by sudden economic hardship. There were pensions and other income, but the medical bills that accumulated during their son's illness were enormous. "We were desperate," says Ingall. "I had no idea you needed all this insurance in America. The King and Queen had looked after me during my service, and I never even thought about such things."

Ingall sold cars and furniture and began taking an acting workshop. He was a hotel doorman in Ford commercials, played bit parts in The Streets of San Francisco and The Equalizer and appeared in a San Francisco stage production of The Mousetrap. Although his erstwhile comrades would surely have disapproved ("If you became an actor, you might just as well say your sister is a whore"), Ingall recalled the example of his onetime classmate, actor David Niven, with whom he had appeared in some Sandhurst playlets. In those days, "Niven used to come into rehearsals wearing his Oxford baggy 42-inch trousers and roller skates and tell outrageous stories," Ingall remembers fondly.

He keeps his medals and old uniforms under glass. There are a few Indian rugs scattered around the house, an imposing painting of Eagerhart above the fireplace and, of course, his vivid memories of a youth well spent. Margaret, meanwhile, is rebuilding and remodeling their Sonoma home. "I think my wife is trying to rebuild the Empire," he says.

Despite some health problems—Ingall had a hip replaced last year and a small tumor removed from his head—his life has reached a savory moment, like vintage port. And yet: "I have an inner wish that the old days would return," he says. "I know all sorts of things can be done in the name of national and international pride. But there is no doubt about it, when the red, white and blue checkered flag flew over most of the world, it was a place of peace and generous living."

Last month Francis and Margaret flew to England, where the old Bengal Lancer was invited to the Duchess of Kent's annual charity garden party. "I am now an American citizen, but I was English born and English proud," he says. "I have lived a golden life, no question about it."

—Ken Gross, David Hutchings in Sonoma, Calif.

 

From Our Partners